What Urban Exploration Photography Learned From Nature

March 5th, 2012 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

What Did Urban Exploration Photography Learn From Nature?

Is nature glossy? Is nature always beautiful? My father Western American landscape photographer and conservationist, Philip Hyde, said “Nature is always beautiful, even when we might call a scene ugly.” Is he correct?

Red Canyon at Hance Rapid, Boulders in Dunes, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, copyright 1964 by Philip Hyde. First Published in "Time And The River Flowing: Grand Canyon" by Francois Leydet, in the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series. The book that helped defend the Grand Canyon against two dams.

(See the photograph large: “Red Canyon At Hance Rapid, Grand Canyon National Park.”)

Nature surprises us with patterns we might not have noticed or thrilling textures and colors, but nature also at times presents us with drab or even repulsive sights so ugly they smell, such as a road killed skunk or a field spread with cattle manure. My mother, Ardis Hyde, often repeated the old adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I also remember her saying, “Wow, what a beautiful field of manure,” on more than one occasion when we were hauling cow manure for the garden in “Covered Wagon,” a 1952 Chevy Step Side Pickup, see the blog post, “Covered Wagon Journal 1.”

Dad’s photographs of proposed wilderness areas and national parks documented the natural features of the land. He said he was not interested in “Pretty Pictures for Postcards.” This attitude came partially from his having studied and taught with Ansel Adams. Dad also espoused the straight photography and documentary principles of his other mentors Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham. These principles included keeping compositions simple and maintaining the camera’s focus crisp throughout the image, as was only attainable with a large format view camera.

Like Edward Weston, Dad presented his black and white photographs with minimal darkroom manipulation. He said, “There is no need to add drama to nature. Nature is dramatic enough.” However, when he printed dye transfer color prints and Cibachrome color prints, Dad found more color adjustment necessary, to meet his goal of making the final color print look more like the scene as he remembered it, than the film.

Today the trend in much of what is called landscape photography is toward heavy saturation, dramatic weather, unusual lighting, sunlight effects and the most dramatic cliffs, mountains or other land features. Making pictures today is in truth often two arts: Photography, defined as what occurs in camera, plus the art of post processing using Adobe Photoshop or other photo editing software. Post Processing is much like dodging and burning in the darkroom, except that in the world of digital prints and photography art, the alteration of images is easy to overdo because it takes no more effort to move the slider to 80 percent than to take it only to 10 percent. In contrast, when darkroom processing ruled, greater alteration took more work.

Landscape photography today displays magnificence. Big scenes of striking beauty possess the viewer, exhibiting an abundance of what photography galleries call, “Wow factor.” In contrast, my father’s photography grunge rocked: gritty, clear, raw and most importantly imperfect. The imperfections were minimized in the darkroom, but certainly not removed or cropped out of the photograph as they are today.

Nature is very rarely perfect. Neither is any kind of photography. While many produce sub-standard photographs, many landscape photographers thrive with quality work and high standards for maintaining a “natural look.” I have looked at much current landscape photography. In my opinion the best work continues to become better.

Nonetheless, much of landscape photographers today could re-learn, or learn back a lesson from Urban Exploration, Urb Ex or Urban Decay photography. The lesson Urban Exploration photography learned from nature. The best way to understand the lesson is to read one of the master lesson teachers in Urban Exploration Photography, Chase Jarvis. Chase Jarvis recently wrote a blog post called, “The Un-Moment: Why Gritty Beats Glossy & the Deceit of Perfection.” I recommend repeated reading of this post for landscape photographers who want to find their own voice and connect more deeply with nature. Any photographer, for that matter, who wants to have an authentic connection with his or her subject matter could learn from Chase Jarvis.

What do you think? Can the beauty of imperfection improve landscape photography? Does gritty make sense in photography genres other than Urban Exploration?



  1. pj says:

    Interesting thoughts David, and something everyone who carries a camera should think about. Repeatedly.

    I guess I would agree. There can be great beauty in what’s considered ugly and imperfect. Much photography, though well done, is so stylized and perfect that it has a feeling of artificiality to it — what Jarvis called soulless. On the other hand, attempts to look raw and grungy can look just as contrived if not done honestly and sensitively. It can be a real balancing act.

    The key words in your post are ‘authentic connection’. If you make that connection, the subject, regardless of what it is, will tell you which way to go.

    Excellent post.

  2. PJ, thank you for that clarification. Imposing a pre conceived idea of either beauty or grit, can make landscape photographs look contrived. A connection to subject matter can prevent this. I also find that allowing beautiful scenes to exhibit elements of grit frees me to be more creative, rather than always worrying that my images have to be perfectly clean and without telephone wires, garbage cans or ugly sticks at the wrong angle for the composition. I like to leave in the power lines and picnic tables in the woods. If someone says that a certain object is a distraction, implying I ought to Photoshop it out, I am apt to leave it in on purpose. I agree with my father, he didn’t want to dress photographs up to produce a falsified beauty greater than what nature originally presented. Nature is not perfect and implying that under my hands she can be, comes from ego. I realize there are exceptions, but often perfecting images through alteration, addition or removal of objects can be a way of saying, “Look, I captured the perfect scene. See how wonderful I am.”

  3. Sharon says:

    If we take your father’s photograph of Boulders in Dunes as an example of a gritty photograph, David, then we have to note that it is beautifully composed with the lines of rocks arcing gracefully through the scene, it is taken at the right time of day as the light is lovely and the shadows add great dimension to the scene and the subject matter is of interest. It takes skill and a sensitivity to the landscape to take a photograph like this.

    I enjoy gritty, but I also like well-taken photographs that are presented well.


  4. That’s a good point, Sharon. I tend to agree, with much photography. Even with imperfect photographs, I like good composition better than poor composition. What’s also true is that my father had far grittier photographs than “Red Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park.” Even so, most of Dad’s more gritty photographs did usually have elements of good composition and solid artistic principles involved, which is often true of the documentary approach, and the Urban Exploration genre, even though they also avoid good composition at times.

  5. Greg Russell says:

    David, this is an excellent post. It addresses something I see as well in landscape photography. Previously, I had fallen victim to the trap, as you present it. I would be really disappointed not to have dramatic light or weather on a trip, and declare the whole thing a wash as a result. While I still do hope for a lovely sky, the photographer in me has embraced (finally) what the rest of me has said all along…beauty is everywhere. A shame many photographers fail to see that.

    When I was growing up, I used to mountain bike with a friend early in the mornings. Finally one day he quit going, saying that it “was ugly.” I never could understand that…how could the pinion-juniper forest of my youth be ugly? To this day, more than 2 decades later, I still can’t relate to that comment.


  6. Hi Greg, I never understood that either. Some people don’t like the desert, but like savannah, some people like wide open fields, some like mountains, some don’t like forests, but they like lakes. To me it is all attractive. I like the land most similar to what I grew up in the best, but to me the whole world and all the types of terrain, flora and fauna are beautiful. Also, my favorite Edward Weston quote is, “I can look at my boot and find a great photograph.” Saying beauty is found when looking closely.

  7. Richard Wong says:

    Great post David. In regards to the amount of post-processing that goes on these days and the quest to achieve “perfection”, I find most landscape photography to be really boring nowadays because it all looks the same, and same shots over and over. I don’t look at as much as I used to and find myself looking at other styles for inspiration online at least. I still do love seeing nature photos at galleries though as that offers a different kind of viewing experience.

    Your dad’s work still stands out though because it never fell trap to trends.

  8. Hi Richard, I too like to explore other styles, as color landscape photography has gone in a direction that frankly is a bit embarrassing to the genre that Dad helped invent, that is, to me it is the opposite of what a connection with nature is about. Dad’s work didn’t follow trends because there weren’t many other photographers of the natural scene to set trends. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston set the anti trend for the West Coast tradition of straight photography, thank goodness, producing classic, timeless, trend-free solid art. Even Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise Hernandez” darkroom black and white silver prints that supposedly went through 27 steps of alteration, have been cited by some Photoshop users as an excuse for overdoing post processing. To the contrary of motives today, the post processing of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” had the goal to look more like the original scene as Ansel Adams saw it.

  9. Richard Wong says:

    Glad to know we share the same ideals, David. In regards to “Moonrise”, those people are missing the point. That Ansel Adams took a good image and made it into an amazing print. How much work it took, shouldn’t justify bad post-processing or a substitute for photographic skill.

  10. Richard, most definitely agreed. Ansel Adams started with a great image that was well worth working on. He wasn’t trying to make bad photographs good, or make up for his lack of skill as a photographer through expertise in Photoshop.

  11. Jim says:

    Hello David,

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts because they always challenge me to really think about what landscape photography is to me. I read Chase’s blog post (a few times) and it was indeed insightful, although I found it a bit ironic that he cited Catier-Bresson as an example of the “un-moment”.

    It’s very common these days for people to categorize styles of photography as “good” or “bad”. A brief visit to any photography forum will subject the reader to post after post of “this work sucks” and “this work is great”. (Perhaps coincidentally, the writer usually takes the position that everybody else’s work sucks while his/her own is quite genius. Go figure.) It seems photography styles have to be considered “right” or “wrong” rather than accepting that people approach subjects with different visions and points of view. Many people seem to have forgotten the subjective nature of art.

    I love dramatic light and storm clouds because to me they represent the power and constant change of nature. Earlier this year I had a series on clouds published in Lenswork magazine and my objective was to get across the idea that these clouds, composed of millions of tons of condensed water floating thousands of feet above the ground, are a physical manifestation of the elements that shape the amazing landscapes that I love so much. There’s immense power, yet so much grace and form. However, I have also photographed in desert areas recently ravaged by flash floods and forests leveled by wildfire. I found a different kind of beauty in each; knowing full well that nature had, as John Muir once stated, “torn down the old temple in order to build a newer, better one.”

    To me, grit and gloss are essentially two sides of the same coin. A few years ago I was at the Grand Canyon and overheard a ranger telling a group of people that visitors often complained to him that the canyon is boring. They told him that they had seen beautiful photos of it, yet after visiting, they weren’t impressed. That’s because the photos they saw were taken during storms, or during sunrise or sunset with a sky full of gorgeous clouds, and on their visit the skies may have been clear and they waited until the harsh light 10am to go out and view the canyon. If I make a photograph of the canyon during a beautiful storm with that inimitable dramatic light, I have not lied. It’s simply what the canyon looked like at that particular point in time. Photographing it at noon on a cloudless day isn’t a lie either. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, they’re just two moments in time that make up the greater truth of nature. As PJ noted in a post above; it’s all about an “authentic connection”.

    Your dad had a wonderful viewpoint on landscape photography; one that I greatly admire and appreciate. Thanks so much for your thoughtful posts, and I apologize for once again writing a small book in your comments section.

  12. Hi Jim, I like storms, dramatic weather and dramatic lighting too. John Szarkowski said that Ansel Adams looked to photograph weather more than the geography. Dad, on the other hand photographed geography more than weather. However, Dad did on occasion photograph dramatic weather. He probably invented some sun tricks with reflections, photographing directly into the sun and God’s rays. However, most of his photographs are subtle and straight. When every photograph has some trick, gimmick or extraordinary moment, as Richard said above, they do all start to look the same, in my opinion. Dramatically lit photographs are beautiful as a part of your portfolio, not as the whole portfolio. And dramatic weather and lighting are part of nature too, as you say. Also, dramatic lighting and weather don’t necessarily automatically fall into the same bin as over-saturated colors or other gimmicks. Though, weather and lighting can look like gimmicks too. In my opinion, photographs that combine dramatic natural conditions with tricks are proliferating online. These contrived settings are not what I think of when I think of nature or natural. They are what I think of when I think artificial, over dramatized, stilted, posed, set up, and contrived; but this is not necessarily true in all cases. I generally take extreme positions just to spark discussion. Sometimes I go a bit overboard and probably scare people away from the discussion. However, I say now, have said and will say that I welcome those who hold opposite perspectives to mine. I am fundamentally open minded, though strongly opinionated. Make your case. As Clint Eastwood said as Dirty Harry, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Thank you for your contributions to these discussions, Jim. You are more diplomatic than I am. Your past comments have helped me see other angles and explore my views more meaningfully, without being combative. Thank you.

  13. Jim says:

    Hello David,

    Thank you for your compliments. Just to be clear, I agree with the statements in your post. My intent was to only to point out that photographing dramatic storms and/or rare light doesn’t directly translate to slick/glossy/gimmicky. The term “photography” covers an extremely broad spectrum of subjects, styles and techniques, and often the lines between “authentic” and “contrived” can be blurry. The explosion of the digital revolution and literally billions of photos being posted online daily is the HUGE contributing factor in this. (And the fact that so many people simply copy what somebody else has already done.) I value your candidness because it forces me to constantly reevaluate my own approach to landscape photography.

    As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of your dad’s work and the work of Ansel Adams and his other contemporaries; artists who had vision and didn’t need Photoshop to create stunning images that stand the test of time.

    You and I are on the same page, I’m sure. : )

  14. Hi Jim, your point is well taken, thank you for returning. I didn’t intend to make it sound as though I feel dramatic weather and lighting are not worth photographing, or are not natural or even that I consider them in the same rut as Photoshop color over-saturation and other digital imaging gimmicks. I edited my comment above some to clarify.

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